S&S Bar at 814 Grand Avenue is more than just another tavern; it’s a symbol of a benevolent organization that has endured in Merrill for a century.
Merrill Social & Sick Benefit Society marked 100 years on July 1, 2012. The fraternal organization was founded on July 1, 1912, with its major purpose being to provide benefits to members who were temporarily unable to work due to sickness or injury. These types of mutual benefit societies were common at the time, but relatively few exist today.
The Social & Sick Benefit Society, in fact, purchased the building on Grand Avenue from the Sons of Herman, a similar organization that had been founded by German immigrants. Social & Sick has remained at that same location for 100 years.
“It’s been added onto and remodeled, but it’s still the same building,” said current society president Duane Tomajcik, who joined in 1958.
According to the society’s original by-laws, new members had to be men between the ages of 18 and 50. They also needed to be “physically and mentally sound, of good character, capable of supporting themselves and their family.” Applicants had to be a resident of the county for at least six months and pay an application fee of $2. Monthly dues were originally set at 50 cents per month.
A member who became ill did not receive benefits during the first week of the illness. If the illness persisted, the members would receive a benefit of $1 per day for up to 84 days. At a time when the average working man made $750 a year, that wasn’t a bad insurance policy. Of course, there were restrictions on what illnesses would be covered; expressly those “brought on by the use of intoxicating liquors… or by any immoral conduct.”
The by-laws also provided for a committee to visit sick members. As soon as a member reported he had recovered, the visiting committee was to pass that information to the secretary and president at once.
In case of death of a member, $75 would be paid to the widow or other survivors.
After 100 years, the sickness and death benefits remain at the 1912 levels. Now, very few members who become ill even bother to collect the $1 a day to which they’re entitled.
While the benefits are now a rather nominal amount, the dues – now at $20 per year – haven’t exactly kept pace with the cost of living, either.
Today, the biggest financial benefit to membership is a college scholarship offered to members’ children. The society currently offers up to two simultaneous scholarships, which each pay $2,000 per year for four years. People must be members for at least four years before their children are eligible for scholarships and the student must graduate from Merrill High School.
Money not spent on scholarships is donated to the Merrill community, with a special focus on causes that benefit the youth of the area.
“We’ve donated to lots of organizations and causes in Merrill,” Tomajcik said. “If it’s for the kids, we do what we can.”
Causes supported by S&S in recent years include the Family Resource Center, Merrill High School Senior Celebration, MDA, backpacks for kids, Babe Ruth, O’Tannenbaum Tour, Pine Crest, Tree of Hope, Merrill Baseball, After the Bell, Kippenberg Creek Kids, and Merrill Band Boosters.
The society’s revenues for scholarships and charitable donations come from member dues, any profits from the tavern and returns on investments. Lately, most of the money has come from the society’s investments.
Duane Tomajcik is the most senior member of Social & Sick, with over 50 years in the society. He has a son and a stepson who have also joined.
In fact, most join the society through friends and relatives. For society treasurer Mike Kunkel, he joined after his brother Bob did. Duane’s son, Shawn, said he enjoys the camaraderie of being a member.
“It’s a guys night out,” explained society secretary Jeff Anderson.
The membership rolls remained steady at about 75 members for many years, Tomajcik said. The decision to offer college scholarships likely spurred a sudden increase in membership. Membership was capped at 125 – that’s all the meeting hall will hold – and there are currently more than 40 names on a waiting list to join the society.
“We don’t have much turnover,” Tomajcik said.
The member of Social & Sick meet once a month for a short meeting and a meal.
Men over 40 are welcome to join, but are not eligible for benefits. A ladies’ auxiliary existed for a time, but dwindled out due to lack of interest, Tomajcik said.